Looking Back

Aguinaldo on the death of Bonifacio

/ 05:05 AM February 20, 2019

Libraries and archives are the historian’s traditional playground. In the 21st century, these physical resources can be retrieved in digital form on the internet, thanks to a minority that provide free access, while the rest restrict research, placing their pathetic selves as gatekeepers to knowledge.

Auction houses have been my new playgrounds of late, with Leon Gallery and Salcedo luring many hitherto unknown or inaccessible historical material temporarily into public view, before they disappear yet again into private collections.


While contemporary Philippine art is the bread and butter of auctions, Leon Gallery has consistently included history in its lots. Based on previous performance, Jose Rizal is the bestseller, followed by Andres Bonifacio. First editions of Rizal’s novels fetch six figures, original letters more so. Bonifacio did not leave as extensive a paper trail as Rizal did, so the handful of his known letters and some documents with his signature are always in demand.

With the Bonifacio archive depleted, collectors interested in the Katipunan have the last chance this weekend with Emilio Jacinto’s manuscripts, the handwritten autobiography of Bonifacio’s widow Gregoria de Jesus, and the account of the Bonifacio execution by Lazaro Makapagal.


Most curious are two documents Emilio Aguinaldo wrote, at the prodding perhaps of the historian Jose P. Santos (son of Epifanio de los Santos, whose name is on the largest parking lot in Metro Manila during rush hour). These documents break his long silence on the execution of the Bonifacio brothers in the environs of Maragondon on May 10, 1897.

The first is a one-page typescript, with Aguinaldo’s handwritten corrections, dated May 11, 1948 (a day after the 51st anniversary of the death of Bonifacio); the second has two pages in his distinct handwriting, dated March 22, 1948 (his 79th birthday). Both were meant to clarify the facts to a public that had already made up its mind regarding Aguinaldo’s guilt.

Recent commentary on the documents label them a “confession” when they are not so, and scream that these prove he ordered the execution, when it was a military court that found the Bonifacio brothers guilty of treason and sentenced them to death.

These two documents led me to review related material, beginning with an interview Aguinaldo gave in December 1897 to the correspondent of the Madrid newspaper El Imparcial, where he is quoted to have said: “Andres Bonifacio, a cruel man whom I ordered shot and with his death the Katipunan disappeared.”

In “A Second Look at America” (1957), a memoir coauthored with Vicente Albano Pacis, Aguinaldo said:

“… I recognized, as did my colleagues, the invaluable service of Bonifacio in organizing the Katipunan. I was in hopes that this service would in time be more generally acknowledged and that, in the context of his patriotic deeds, his error for which the court-martial condemned him to die would also be forgiven. But now forces beyond my control came into play. All my ranking subordinates, led by Generals Mariano Noriel and Pio del Pilar, were against my commutation of Bonifacio’s death and they pressed me to withdraw it. I resisted them at first… They maintained that as long as Bonifacio lived, there would be Filipinos who would rally around him and with him defy the revolutionary government openly or secretly. And if Bonifacio should manage to escape from exile, he would be able to do us great harm. The possibilities they mentioned ranged from my assassination by his agents to joining forces with the Spaniards… I had to yield; I withdrew my commutation order… While I deeply deplored Bonifacio’s loss, I could not show weakness. The times and circumstances demanded of me firmness and sternness however heavy was my heart. His death having left me the undisputed leader of the revolution, together with its tremendous responsibilities and sacrifices, I could not afford to cure the disunity Bonifacio had created with another disunity which might have resulted from differences over his punishment.”

That Bonifacio’s death averted civil war between two governments is reiterated in Aguinaldo’s 1967 memoirs, though an important paragraph stating so in the original Tagalog is strangely missing from the English translation. One can only wish that history teaches us to avoid emotional responses to the issue, and choose a nuanced understanding based on the primary sources.


Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, andres bonifacio, Emilio Aguinaldo, Looking Back, Philippine history
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